On a minimal set with few technical flourishes, Ubuntu Theater Project has just opened its ambitious 2015 Summer Theatre Festival with Marcus Gardley’s “Dance of the Holy Ghosts.” It is an auspicious start and a solid example of the pure power of unvarnished theater.
There is a deeply reverent spirituality at work in the production. Director Michael Socrates Moran takes full advantage of his Oakland City Church setting, putting a soulful gospel choir in the loft singing call-and-response hymns popular in African-American worship.
The choir becomes the company and a Greek chorus observing, commenting and assuming characters. It seamlessly manages stage directions and costume changes, choreographed with an almost liturgical solemnity of purpose.
Like the Christian trinity, the play contains a father and a (grand)son, but there are multiple ghosts. They all spring from Marcus G. (William Thomas Hodgson), who mentally traces the tragic trajectory of three generations of his family.
Gardley — author of “The House That Will Not Stand” and “… And Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi” — wrote the play while a student at Yale.
First produced in 2006, the play has shorter versions. This production is based on the original manuscript and runs just under three hours, including intermission. With Moran’s embellishments, which include a Woman Old As Wisdom narrator figure, the production taxes attention. Some time shifts are confusing and there are sections that could easily be excised.
However, the cuts would not be for lack of quality in either Gardley’s lyrically poetic writing or the passionate conviction of the company.
Hodgson brilliantly takes his character back and forth from 6-year-old precociousness to adult conflict. He mourns familial losses, explores the challenges of growing into a definition of manhood, and lives a deeply rooted struggle to reconcile with his frequently absent grandfather.
Blues musician Oscar Clifton (Keith Wallace) is that central figure in his life. Wallace creates a richly flawed character, torn between music and responsibility, who brings disappointment and loss to all he professes to love.
Candace Thomas is superb in the dual roles of Oscar’s strong and long-suffering wife, Viola, and playground princess Tanisha, the object of obsession for young Marcus. Halili Knox imbues her narrator with an epic gravitas. William H.P. has a richly funny sequence as the Jheri-curled teacher Father Michael and Megan Wells brings tragic foreshadowing to Darlene, a member of the family’s lost middle generation, who asks her distracted father, “Sing me a dream!”
IF YOU GO: Dance of the Holy Ghosts
Presented by Ubuntu Theater Project
Where: Oakland City Church, 2735 MacArthur Blvd., Oakland
When: 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m Sundays; closes Aug. 2 Tickets: $15 to $35, pay-what-you-can at door
Contact: (510) 910-2494, www.ubuntutheaterproject.com